Keeping Perspective after a Tough Election

(Editor’s Note: Marcy Bowers is the Membership and Communications Coordinator for the Statewide Poverty Action Network, a program of Solid Ground that works to build grassroots power to end the root causes of poverty and create opportunities for everyone to prosper.)

Volunteer canvassers in Tacoma

I confess. I’m an eternal optimist. I believe in crazy notions like “things will always get better,” and “there is always something gained, even when things go wrong.” I think this is what drove me to choose a career in organizing, what has kept me in this field for the past eight years, and what allows me to keep going in the face of devastating election losses.

This year in Washington, voters faced a record seven statewide ballot measures. Of those seven measures, three (I-1098, I-1053, and I-1107) will directly impact our state’s ability to balance the budget without making drastic cuts to the programs and services that people depend on to survive.

Reflecting a national wave of anti-tax, anti-government rhetoric, those three measures decidedly “went wrong:”

• I-1098 would have created a limited income tax on Washington’s wealthiest 1%, bringing in over $2 billion a year for healthcare and education. It failed, 65% to 35%.

• I-1053, this year’s Tim Eyman disaster, will require a two-thirds vote in the legislature or a vote of the people to raise taxes or close corporate tax loopholes. In this economy, this measure will surely mean more budget cuts. It passed, 65% to 35%

• I-1107 repealed a small tax on soda, bottled water, candy and gum that Poverty Action and other advocates passed during last year’s legislative session. These taxes would have brought in $300 million a year for schools, kids’ health care, domestic violence and sexual assault services, and many other basic services. It passed, 62% to 38%.

So, let’s get back to that optimism thing. How in the world can I possibly be optimistic when Washington is facing another $4.5 billion budget deficit and voters just repealed taxes and made it nearly impossible to raise revenue in 2011? How can I possibly be hopeful knowing that, as a result, Washington State is poised to be the first state to cut prescription drug benefits for people on Medicaid?

Canvassers' toolkit: clipboard and educational materials

To be honest, there’s not a lot of hope to be found if I only look at those daunting questions. For me, it’s about taking a wider view of election organizing and remembering that elections are only partly about the issues on the ballot. I became an organizer to help build political power in low-income communities, not just to pass or defeat ballot measures. The work of building political power is simply too big and too important to achieve in just one election season. It’s about the process of building trust and community, engaging new and infrequent voters, registering voters whose right to vote was recently restored, and talking to people about why their vote matters and how issues on the ballot will impact their communities.

Even with devastating election losses, I can still be proud of the work Poverty Action did this year to register over 1,200 new voters. I can still find hope in the knowledge that we reached out to 12,000 voters in low-income communities and communities of color and talked about the real impact of this year’s ballot measures on their communities. I will be encouraged when I remember that the building blocks to real political power are found in the countless conversations we had at transitional housing facilities, in food bank lines, and at resource fairs this summer and fall.

And those numbers and conversations matter. In a state where gubernatorial elections have been decided by just 133 votes (Gregoire in 2004), 1,200 newly registered voters, armed with knowledge and ownership of their role in state politics, can easily decide the outcome of future statewide elections in Washington. From my perspective, it’s hard to not feel optimistic about that!

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